Relationships are about organizations and people (not communications tools)

It seems that “email is broadcast communications with the audience” while social media is (or can be) interactive and a way to have a conversation with your audience. Broadcast messaging is a shout at recipients to take action. Interactive or social media may make a call to action but it assumes opportunity for other involvement by the recipient.

Shouting in the storm by Flickr user lanier67
Organizations that aren't thinking about relationships may be shouting into the wind regardless of communications medium. Photo by Flickr user lanier67.

Communications media have been forever evolving, however, and while some channels may lend themselves to more or less interaction their use as engagement and relationship-crafting tools has more to do with the communicator than the medium. To paraphrase Beth Kanter, perhaps, a fortress organization with a Facebook page is still a fortress.

Social media to the rescue?

We talk about conversation, continued interaction, and (if you like) two-way engagement is viewed as more valuable. Relationships aren’t built in a command and control environment (except in the military, perhaps). An organization, campaign or company that can interact and have a back-and-forth dialog with a constituent or customer is, they say, going to have a more fruitful relationship with that customer (or donor or member).

Social media is sometimes characterized as a knight in shining armor riding to the rescue of organizations besieged and alone inside email and print walls that let messages out while nothing comes in. Social medial will knock down the walls and create a free flow of conversation and information amongst leaders, staff and citizens. All will benefit. Cake for everyone.

But what if social media turns into a broadcast medium? Or what if it already is one? Derek Harding’s recent post at ClickZ asks this question and points out that in the “early days,” email was considered a conversational relationship-building tool for organizations. Feedback and response was encouraged. In time, corporations and organizations dialed back on the quality, quantity and even basic availability of contact via email. Perhaps the demand wasn’t there. Perhaps it wasn’t seen as cost-effective or scalable. It is, of course, theoretically possible to contact companies and organizations by email but it’s a customer service process – often a last-ditch one for a customer with few expectations about good results.

Will constituent/customer interaction with organizations on social media go the same way? Organizations encourage this by doing little or nothing to provoke response or interaction in social media channels. Organizations may make it hard or impossible for people to post on Facebook fan page walls. They may choose to never publicly respond on social media networks. They may, in the end and despite hype to the contrary, see minimal value in social media engagement and proceed more or less as they always have. Social media is used as another distribution channel, like newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, websites, email, text messaging and billboards.

The savvy social media observer may note that most everyone is on social networks and their transparency and visibility won’t make it possible for organizations to ignore them or use them as platforms for shouting into the wind. Social media can engage, deepen relationships and increase the value of a person to an organization. True. Perhaps.

The nonprofit sector has examples of organizations engaging members and supporters through social media. But many still put up walls that limit incoming conversations and interaction. They do not have the time or resources for interaction. Often, they don’t trust audience members to act in good faith. Regardless of the reasons, I think there is a middle ground and it has already been found.

Not a question of how communications is used. It is about the type of organization you are.

The question is not whether social media will move from an interactive/conversational medium to a broadcast one. In many or most cases it is already used for broadcasting messages.

The real question for organizations is more basic. How do we choose choose to relate with people when presented with opportunities for one-to-on interaction. In an organizational culture of engagement and relationship the choice of how to use social media is clear. The relationship-driven organization will see the possibilities for interaction in all communications mediums (social media, email, print, phone, person-to-person) and be able to optimize the medium for conversation (or at least weigh the options more clearly).

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